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Hamas tested rocket with a longer range, Israel says

The rocket was reportedly supplied by Iran and can reach Tel Aviv from Gaza. Israeli officials say the launch is the latest sign that the militant group is rebuilding and upgrading its arsenal.

November 04, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip have test-fired a rocket with a 37-mile range, Israel's military intelligence chief said Tuesday, giving them the capacity to reach deeper into Israel and strike Tel Aviv's southern suburbs and possibly its international airport.

Israeli officials said the launch into the Mediterranean Sea was the latest sign of the rebuilding and upgrading of Hamas' arsenal since the Jewish state's crippling 22-day offensive in Gaza last winter, but did not appear to foreshadow an imminent renewal of hostilities. They said the rocket had been supplied by Iran, smuggled in pieces through tunnels from Egypt and assembled in the Palestinian territory.

The Hamas movement's military wing refused to confirm or deny the Israeli report; a political spokesman, Fawzi Barzoum, dismissed it as a "fabrication."

Most rockets fired from Gaza in the past have been crude, locally made weapons with a range of a few miles. Hamas launched more powerful rockets, which Israel said were imported, before and during the winter conflict. Some landed as far as 25 miles inside Israel, striking the cities of Beersheba and Ashdod.

Israel's report of the longer-range rocket test came on the eve of a scheduled United Nations General Assembly session to discuss a report detailing evidence of war crimes by Israel's army and Hamas militants. Israel has rejected the report, based on a U.N. inquiry led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, saying it is biased.

Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, the Israeli intelligence chief, told the parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee that Hamas had fully replenished the stock of rockets it used or lost in the fighting last winter but is not yet prepared for a new conflict. For now, he said, the group prefers calm so it can continue rebuilding its military strength and consolidating its control of the coastal strip, which it seized from the Palestinian Authority in 2007.

His comments were reported by Israeli media briefed by lawmakers and other officials after the closed meeting. Channel 1 television reported that Hamas fired the rocket in heavy rain Thursday, apparently trying to avoid detection.

A member of Israel's intelligence community, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the rocket was one of a number that had been smuggled from Iran, which supports Hamas and other militant Islamic groups allied against Israel. The Israeli military has previously asserted that the Iranians are supplying rockets, but it has not released detailed evidence.

The newest long-range rockets, like the others, lack guidance systems and are wildly inaccurate, Israeli officials say. But the weapons could pose a threat to much of Israel's largest urban sprawl and possibly to Tel Aviv's international airport, which lies at the outer edge of their range. Rockets fired from Gaza have terrorized southern communities and killed more than 20 Israelis over the years.

The Gaza border has been unusually quiet since the winter conflict, in part because Hamas is working against the splinter groups responsible for the few rocket attacks, said Yadlin, the intelligence chief. On occasion, he was quoted as telling the committee, Hamas gunmen have shot members of unauthorized rocket-launching squads in the knees.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a member of the committee in the parliament, told Israel Radio that Hamas' arms buildup might be leading Israel toward a new military clash. But he said the government was focused on a bigger potential threat from Iran, which Israel and Western powers suspect of seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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